The first season of Orphan Black is must-see science fiction television, an intelligent and complex mix of suspense, drama, action, humor, and scientific mystery that wrestles with important questions in highly compelling fashion. And its star, the amazing Tatiana Maslany, delivers perhaps the single most impressive, sustained TV performance by any person, on any show, in any season, ever. Seriously.
Set in near-future Toronto, the story begins when Sarah Manning (Maslany) witnesses the shocking suicide of her perfect doppelgänger, Beth Childs. Sarah, a drifter and con artist, has serious problems with her drug-dealing ex Vic (Michael Mando), and needs an out. The suicide provides the perfect opportunity: she steals first Beth’s purse, and then — with the help of her foster brother, Felix (Jordan Gavaris) — Beth’s life. But she gets more than she bargained for when it turns out that Beth was a detective on the police force, hounded by her superiors and her partner, Art Bell (Kevin Hanchard). Also complicating things is Beth’s long-term boyfriend, Paul Dierden (Dylan Bruce). Sarah’s immediate goals are challenging, but straightforward: con Paul, Art, and the police long enough to clean out Beth’s bank account, so she and her daughter Kira — currently under the care of Sarah’s foster mother, Mrs. S (Maria Doyle Kennedy) — can start over somewhere else. But the longer Sarah lives in Beth’s shoes, the more entangled she gets in the mystery that drove Beth to suicide: the fact that she was a clone, and that there are others. Many, many others — including, of course, Sarah.
Orphan Black is smart, addictive TV. At the core of it is the science fiction mystery: who created the clones, why, and how, and what forces are at work against them? These questions, set up perfectly in an extremely strong pilot, propel the series. The SF premise is handled both intelligently and realistically, focusing first on compelling narrative but also factoring in ethical, legal, and religious questions. As Sarah navigates this complex mystery, elements of other genres add to the depth and richness of the world. It’s a police procedural, a domestic drama, a conspiracy thriller, and a corporate espionage yarn all balled into one, all of these pieces orbiting the science fictional core. Indeed, it’s probably one of those SF shows that infuriating mainstream critics will laud for “transcending its genre,” without quite noticing that it’s the SF that’s enhancing all of the other genres within it.
And of course on top of all this, it has Tatiana Maslany. In a performance that surely must have become increasingly challenging as it went along, Maslany is just a marvel. As Sarah Manning alone, she carries the show with a spirited, convincing central performance. But she also plays multiple “supporting” characters that are every bit as rich and interesting, differentiated brilliantly with accents, costumes, and mannerisms. This puts the actress in the odd position of frequently interacting with herself, something that she pulls off masterfully, with the assistance of some clever filmmaking techniques. And then she goes on to play clones impersonating other clones…which she pulls off without losing either character. It’s a tour de force, to say the least. (Maslany’s omission from the Emmy nomination list is just impossible to fathom. I mean, honestly, she could have multiple nominations!) It’s simply stunning. The supporting cast, while naturally overshadowed, backs her up ably. Particularly fun is Jordan Gavaris, whose Felix is a hilarious, reluctant sounding board for Sarah’s increasingly complicated dilemmas.
It’s deftly plotted, attractively shot, thought-provoking, assured, and utterly addictive stuff, elevated even further by Maslany’s incredible acting. I can’t recommend it highly enough.